On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the expulsion of his parents and siblings from Germany.[k] When vom Rath died on 9 November, the government used his death as a pretext to instigate a pogrom against the Jews throughout the Third Reich. The government claimed it was spontaneous, but in fact it had been ordered and planned by Hitler and Goebbels, although with no clear goals, according to David Cesarani; the result, he writes, was "murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale".
I suffered from all these symptoms, together with a tight feeling at the throat. I was half conscious when my number was called out by Dr. Mengele and I was led from the chamber. I attribute my escape to the fact that the daughter of a friend of mine who was an Aryan and a doctor at Auschwitz had seen me being transported to the chamber and had told her mother, who immediately appealed to Dr. Mengele.
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
To come to the diary without having earlier assimilated Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved” (to mention two witnesses only), or the columns of figures in the transport books, is to allow oneself to stew in an implausible and ugly innocence. The litany of blurbs—“a lasting testament to the indestructible nobility of the human spirit,” “an everlasting source of courage and inspiration”—is no more substantial than any other display of self-delusion. The success—the triumph—of Bergen-Belsen was precisely that it blotted out the possibility of courage, that it proved to be a lasting testament to the human spirit’s easy destructibility. “Hier ist kein Warum,” a guard at Auschwitz warned: here there is no “why,” neither question nor answer, only the dark of unreason. Anne Frank’s story, truthfully told, is unredeemed and unredeemable.
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
Nevertheless, some acts of rescue seem to have been unplanned, spontaneous extensions of a general habit to help the needy. Indeed, most rescuers do not appear to have thought carefully about their actions or analyzed them; instead, they viewed their assistance to Jews as a natural reaction to human suffering. Some even insisted in postwar interviews that there was nothing special about what they did to save Jewish lives. Only a small fraction of rescuers saw their saving of Jews as extraordinary. A large majority of rescuers described aiding Jews because they were in pain and in need, while just over one-quarter said that they helped because it was a Christian duty. About half saw their actions as a protest against the occupation. For some rescuers, such attitudes required protecting even people they disliked.
Amit withstood pressure from many members of his staff who were Holocaust survivors or relatives of victims. But others thought he was right. Rafi Eitan, an Israel-born Mossad operative who led the team that caught Eichmann, told me: “Because of the need for foreign-language speakers, many of the Mossad’s recruits were from Europe, and therefore had gone through the Holocaust or lost their families in it. One can definitely understand their need for vengeance. However, there was huge pressure to deal with current requirements, and with the resources being as meager as they were, in no way would it have been right to give the Nazi matter priority.”
Mengele joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the Schutzstaffel (SS; protection squadron) in 1938. He received basic training in 1938 with the Gebirgsjäger (light infantry mountain troop) and was called up for service in the Wehrmacht (Nazi armed forces) in June 1940, some months after the outbreak of World War II. He soon volunteered for medical service in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the SS, where he served with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) in a medical reserve battalion until November 1940. He was next assigned to the SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (SS Race and Settlement Main Office) in Poznań, evaluating candidates for Germanization.